Friday, April 29, 2011

People Watching in Pai

I’m sitting on the side of a street in this small town of Pai, wondering what I should title my next post. As I lean back and think, I find myself distracted by two young English girls, walking along the road dressed in their own fashion. That is to say, no Thai girl would ever reveal that much skin out in public. I would put them right about 19 years old, maybe 20. Such sights could be quite distracting while trying to write, but it has led me to start people watching once again. After all, I have always considered people watching one of the most interesting things to do.

Here, that is especially true. This town is very laid back and unique. The hippie feel of the place, brought on by foreigners looking for a place just to chill out, as even rubbed off on the locals. There are Thais, as well as many white folks, with dreadlocks all around town.  There are expats living the chill life here, as well as many younger people constantly coming and going. This location has got quite the reputation for being out of the way and totally relaxed, and you can see it all around in the people it has attracted. I, personally, like to take things easy and not worry about much, so I’ve been fitting into the culture just fine.

Well, that is to say, the foreigners’ culture and the community at the Riverside, where I am staying. I haven’t learned quite enough Thai yet to get in tune with their culture. Hopefully when I swing back through Chiang Mai I can pick up a few more useful phrases and get on to the website my uncle uses to hear the Thai spoken. Also, hopefully the German girl from Utah will be back for their salsa night on Cinco de Mayo, Aside from all that, I have been getting along quite well during my stay here so far.

This is the view from where we practice, just under a few trees. The jungle hills, lush nature, and muddy brown water do not go unnoticed on a daily basis. I have found, much like the folks in San Fran are in tune to the clouds, the people here are in tune with the height of the river. After making a casual comment to that point, I was told that the river has been known to flood. Apparently, they build bamboo bridges after every rainy season, and once they wash away, the wait until the rains stop to rebuild. That would explain why I’ve been here almost a week and this is still not repaired.

I have heard that in the peak season, the entire field where we practice is covered by tents, and that a large bonfire is made every night. I am in Thailand in a time where there is not an overwhelming amount of foreigners. Still, even now, I see a few almost everywhere I go. However, I generally go to areas frequented by tourists, and I have been through some Thai-centric neighborhoods in Chiang Mai. Speaking of tourist locations, I don’t think I would categorize the Riverside as a tourist spot.  Sure, in the cool, dry season, which takes place during my usual North American winter, it is flooded by partiers passing through the area. Now, however, most of the people staying there seem to be staying long term. My instructor is living there semi-permanently, along with another martial arts master, a French guy who doesn’t teach and has an even more guarded history. There are another few French people, and they are always in the kitchen cooking, and many of them also seem to be living there indefinitely.  I have also met another group of Italian guys who have been traveling for quite some time. They are the types to go one place and stay for a month or so, then move on. I have to admit that it looks like quite a good lifestyle, but then again, I have to generate some money to continue traveling forvever. The one Italian I talked to the most, Phillipo, told me that I am lucky that I can speak English so naturally and teach it anywhere I’d like to go. Now, I am taking the chance to really appreciate it.

Also, I appreciate the opportunity to live this life, learning martial arts, chilling out totally stress-free, and partying just as much as I want to. Sure, I’ll admit it might be a little better if I had a good girl by my side, but one of the things I am trying to learn in patience. Speaking of which, I won’t write anymore about what I’ve been studying for the moment. I’m just learning a foundation now, and wouldn’t be able to demonstrate anything impressive to anyone. However, I have been learning to root my weight and energy into the ground, to become aware of my skeletal structure, and to use my center of gravity as a pivot point for my whole body. Really, though, to understand a lot of what I’m feeling right now you’d have to physically do some of the exercises I have. Let’s just say I am discovering how to work out a few new muscles.

OK, all that said, how about a tour of the facility? I was able to get myself a little charge on my computer and take a few pictures for the blog.

Here is my bungalow from the outside. I’m a little worried about just how high this river floods.

As you can see, it is quite cozy. Just enough room. I can sleep under a nice mosquito net, and when you only have a backpack with you, you don’t really need that much room for storage.

This guy lives in my hut. From leg to leg, at it’s longest point, it’s probably the length of a pencil. Thickness, I dunno, about the size of a quarter. Sure, he can creep you out when you look over your shoulder when reading in bed, but he keeps to place mosquito and moth free. After all, he was in that hut before I was, so I didn’t keep him from hanging around.

This is the main structure where I spend the most of my time. The upstairs is just a clear area, where people practice Tai Chi and yoga away from the elements. Underneath, we hangout and relax in the hammocks, and sometimes train. In the back, is a kitchen, when the French are always cooking, and beyond a few bathrooms. The whole thing was built around an old tree, and now the have it carved out beautifully.

Ok, any questions? I may not post for about a week. Currently, not much is changing, and that inevitably makes it hard to write a travel blog. I do continue travel in a week though, so I figure I will post one more time before leaving. I have high expectations for the next few weeks; hopefully, I will see them fulfilled. I wish everyone reading an excellent day, and thank you for reading, it makes writing all the more fun.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lighting out of Clear Sky

Sitting in an internet cafe right now, with sticky, unresponsive keys. My laptop is out of juice, as I have not yet found an adapter to charge it properly. While such things are most certainly available here, I haven't spent the time to go and obtain one. I've been too busy making friends, learning, and having a great time. The Thai kids all around me are playing World of Warcraft, and occasionally I will hear their excited, urgent, or just conversational talking. It is interesting to hear the Thai language interspersed with words like 'centaur.'

Personally, video game have been the last thing on my mind. I changed my accomidations here in Pai so that I could stay where we practice Tai Chi. It is a good training environment, very relaxed, and I enjoying my time as well as learning the basics. I have seen what the others had learned in their month here, and it is impressive. I couldn't possibly reiterate everything that I have learned, especially considering a good deal of it is inexplicably internal. Currently, I have a few tired muscles that I can't remember ever tiring before. Fortunately, the whole practice is, at first, very low impact. Soreness may be coming, once we get into some of the strength training exercises, but so far I have just been opening up my joints and my circulatory system and it has felt wonderful.

Unfortunately, some of his students who I quite liked are in the process of leaving. Peter, an Austalian chap, had left his career in computer programming to go off and explore the world. We had a toast about leaving behind unfulfilling careers and have been getting along just fine. However, he leaves on Saturday. Cedric, a Belgian, is leaving today. They had started training, coincidentally, on the same day as one another, and were able to give me some good insight on the ups and downs of being a beginner. Additionally, I have gotten a chance to see the two of them spar, and hear the advice that has been passed down to them. I'm certainly in no rush to start the martial side of things, I get the impression that training with Thomas often includes taking a few shots to harden the body. Actually, I have already gotten a few very light hits, and his control of force and location is uncanny.

Another student, Mark, is a Yogi who normally ives down south in the islands. I am sorry to see him leaving today or tomorrow, for this Scottish guy had a lot of stories about kilts, whitewater rafting, and adventure sports in general. While I did not get to know him as well as the other two, he is staying here in Thailand, and I wouldn't be too suprised if I see him around. Thankfully, Manuel, a student from Mexico, will be staying on and continue training for a week. We get along quite well, and it is good for me to have an opportunity to practice my Spanish skills. There are a few other students, coming and going, but for now that is all I care to mention.

So, I have decided upon a course of action, at least for the present. I have paid for one week of training here, but then i need to get out of town and out of the country to renew my visa. I will go back to Chiang Mai for some shopping and to catch my aunt and uncle's salsa night before heading on to Lao. A quick few days of party and sightseeing, then a visit to the Thai consulate for a 60 day visa, and back to Pai for some more training. That time around, I think I will stay at least a month, that way I can get a good deal on a motorbike and my accomidations. I just took my bike back after having it for four days. I haven't had a ride for about an hour and i already miss it. However, since i moved to the same property as the Tai Chi master, I figure I won't want need to be biking about town in the meantime.

I expect to learn quite a good deal from this man. Not only about Tai Chi, but about martial arts in general, motorbikes, and even military hardware. He may have had some experience with all that, but I think the background is intentionally vague. Trust me, you don't want to press for information when someone is being dilerabtely ambiguous. Also, you don't want to type a blogpost when there is no spell check, like I'm doing now, but somethings are worse than others.

Here I have the opportunity that doesn't always seem real; there is a martial arts master willing to train me and show me some secrets. To make issues more interesting, he is a business-minded guy and needs some help in putting together his plan. If you are interested in checking out his website, it can be found at Lightning out of Clear Sky is a method that I am not quite ready to learn, that he won't even teach me unless he thinks I will use it resposibly. In fact, there has been much cool and interesting lingo to absorb, such as passing through 1 of the 18 voids. I have learned more about the yin and the yang in three days than I had in my entire life up until then. Still, there is much more to learn. Just hanging out with Thomas, who is a fun person to spend time with regardless, you absorb some of his vast and flowing knowledge base. If not about martial arts, then about history, and if not constructive history, at least you get to hear some damn interesting stories from a lifetime of being adept in the martial arts.

Next time around, I will post a few photos of the atmosphere: the beautful clearing and tree under which we often train, the two story open air shelter for hanging out and when it rains, my bungalow, the mountains, the cows and the stray dogs. Even the spider that is living in my hut, who is now one of my best friends. Not that I pet him, or anything like that, but I leave him be and he keeps the mosquitos out of my bamboo and thatch enclosure. Until I leave on my visa run and Laotian vacation, life is simple: excercise each day, absorb what I hear, and have a good time. Life should always be this simple.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Living in the Present

Here I am, back in Pai. The whirlwind of my arrival and my mother's visit has finally subsided, not that it was a bad whirlwind to ride. Thailand, itself, has been through some weather as well. As summer rainstorm this week has dotted the hot, sunny, humid climate with short, yet intense rains. Last night, I awoke from yet another dream about traveling to the sound of heavy rain pattering against the high rise window. Here in Pai, the river swelled so high that it tore down bamboo bridges, some of which I had crossed over, just last week. The swaying, rickety suspension bridge is still in tact, but this time around, thankfully, I am staying on this side of the river. Two of the three travelers I had met my last time in Pai are still here, in a bungaloo just like the one where I had stayed, just over the swiftly moving brown water.

I spent a day souvenir shopping in Chiang Mai with my family while everyone was still in Chiang Mai. We went to the Thai markets, strikingly devoid of the foreign farang presence that can at times seem ubiquitous to the traveler. At first, Aunt Amy was there to help us navigate with her formidable Thai skills, but my mom and I stayed and fuddled through with our English afterward. I wound up buying a real nice tie with clip and matching cufflinks for under six bucks, but I don't know when I'm ever going to be wearing it; I sent back to the states with mom. She picked a few yards of beautiful silk fabric with elephants for a table cloth, and through her determination we were also able to locate a shop where she bought some fringe. After heading back to aunt's, Jimmy-san and Amy took us out to the Kalari Night Bazaar. There, we did a bit more shopping and had dinner in front of a stage. There, we witnessed a casual, seemingly staged Muay Thai match and several shows of Thai dancing over a few local brews, called "Be-a Changs".

The next day we all went in the city, took some pictures, and sent my mom along her way. I am extremely happy that she got a chance to visit Thailand, especially after her first failed attempt. I think she had a wonderful time, and took more away from it than one normally would from an average vacation. I know I certainly am. Then again, this isn't a traditional vacation from a job waiting for me back home. This is open-ended traveling, and the distinction has sharpened in my mind since my independent departure from Chiang Mai. This morning, not 24 hours after my mom left the city, so did I. Before I left, however, I walked around the city with my uncle while my mom waited with my mom at the airport. We stopped by a local wat where I knew they had "monk chat." Basically, it is an opportunity offered by the monks who will answer your questions on Buddhism, Thai culture, or anything in general. Not only are they happy to share knowledge, they are also for keen to the opportunity to practice English. I wanted to ask him about the amulet I had been wearing, but we wound up talking about much more. He was a smart, young guy of about 20, and he had been wearing the robes for almost nine years already. Eventually we asked him about his plans for the future, and while he admitted to having them, he declined to elaborate. He said that plans are just plans, and that is all in the future; he tries to spend his time living in the present. He suggested that we do the same.

I am very thankful for my family's hospitality, along with so many other things, such as my opportunity to be here. Also, for the little things, such as the two cats sleeping intertwined on the table by my computer, looking perfectly happy and relaxed. Sure, I had to stop writing for a moment when one tried to sleep on my keyboard, but my appreciation of their serenity makes small annoyances like that well worth it.

It was so hot when I got here I immediately rented a motorbike, partially just to drive around and cool off. I must admit to having limited experience with motorbikes, a fact that came up, a bit embarrassingly, later on. Still, it was nice to have to wind cool me off as I drove, and at that moment my novice motorcycle skills were the last thing on my mind. I joy rode for a time, taking in the lay of the land with the eye of someone wanting to learn his way around. Last time, I drove blindly, following my aunt, and it was great to practically take the role of passenger. This time, however, it was I that was riding, and soon enough I started on my own agenda.

While I wasn't able to find a store selling mobile phones, which you can apparently get for quite cheap here, the ride was by no means a failure. Now that I am a few hours removed from the situation, I wonder if it is not for the better. After all, I had been saying that there is no need for me to be constantly connected with the outside world. Then again, it does also function as a watch and an alarm clock. Even more compellingly, it would still be extremely useful in the courtship of females during my stay here, which may wind up being longer than I had originally planned, but more on both of these topics later on.

While riding, I was also looking for an alternative to the Mam Yoga studio. I enjoyed my last class there, but it wasn't an experience I wanted to repeat on a regular basis. The woman teaching it was a little too eccentric, and the class itself was much less intense than what I had been getting in Chiang Mai. I went to one place that I had seen advertised, but that didn't quite pan out. It was at a guest house, and the instructor wasn't there on a regular basis. I went online and it didn't seem too easy to contact the guy for appointments, and I still had other avenues to pursue. I eventually found the Xhale yoga studied, recommended by the instructor in Chiang Mai, tucked away down a narrow soi, the Thai term for the many alley sized roadways.

What I found there certainly what I was expecting. I pulled the bike up to the bamboo and thatch building with a circular bar, lined with books, in the middle. Soon enough, I was greeted by a Thai man with little to no English skills. Soon enough, an English speaker was summoned and told me that, while there was no yoga class, I should go and talk to Thomas in the back. Thomas, apparently, is the resident Tai Chi master. When I talked to him he was rolling something up, and he didn't decline to offer to share. The whole while I sat and we talked, he was moving about, doing Tai Chi, smoke in his hands. He told me about Tai Chi, it's benefits, and the opportunities to learn with him. Not long after a few of his students showed up with some beers, and they toasted to all the wonderful things they had learned in their past three weeks.

After they arrived, Thomas told us a very interesting story that could have easily been made into a kung fu movie. Despite being a small guy, he was the lead bouncer at some nightclub of some resort on a tropical island somewhere. Some Asian mafia was affiliated with with a rival bar, and to conceal their association, they had a big bear of a Russian kickboxer as their head bouncer. The Asians had even taught their bruiser some of their martial secrets, but kept him in the dark concerning the most guarded knowledge. The Russian had a daunting reputation, backed up frequently, that he could beat anyone in arm wrestling. Eventually, however, when the two men had a confrontation, Thomas chose the terms, Chinese arm-wrestling. He was able to stand discreetly, just slightly off his chair, rooted in the ground, while the Russian sat. The point of Chinese arm wrestling is the lock wrists and pull the other man out of his chair, and rooted into the ground, Thomas was able to best the much bigger bewildered Russian.

I left seriously considering staying there and learning from him full-time for a bit. I came back to my room and laid under the fan for quite some time, just thinking. Sure, I read a bit a drew in my sketchbook, but mostly just stared into the ceiling and considered my options. I still have anxiety about traveling, about money, about schedules. I am feeling the weight of my self-imposed schedule of plans to go to Europe before the rainy season here. I have been planning on burning through all my funds, and returning home penniless. Now, I have found an interesting place to study, and have no desire to leave. I can learn martial arts, yoga, massage, and even Thai if I stay. Not only that, I can meet a girl, have some romance, maybe fall in love and maybe break a heart. I have told people that I am trying to live in the present, like the monk had suggested, but in reality I have still been living in the framework of my plans.

I still want to visit Europe, and I don't want to break the plans I have made with my friends. Still, I can't let those plans dictate my life. For now, I am going to stay here in Pai, study Tai Chi, finish my certificate to teach English and have a good time. Maybe I will stay here through the rainy season, teaching and learning. Maybe I will still fly onwards as planned. The truth is that I don't know, and that I like not knowing. I am living in the present. If I wind up not being somewhere at a certain time, I am sorry to the person who was expecting me, but I trust that they will understand my decision. I want to travel west around the world, returning to New Jersey a changed man. It just seems that I might take a little longer than I had expected.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Riding into 2554 with Elephants!

It has been more than a week since my last post, and quite the week it has been. I've been to an aquarium, a zoo, a mountaintop temple, a concert in the streets, an open mike night, an elephant camp, and an elephant nature park. I've also been in a bus, on a scooter, in a river, in a pool, at a waterfall, in a hammock, on a bed, on the floor and on a couch. I've been drunk, sober, happy, sad, healthy, and sick. I have probably traveled 1,000 kilometers, yet I am right back where I was when I wrote my last post, only a week ago.

First off, the Thais really know how to bring in their New Year. Each day the celebrations intensified, and it is fun that the whole family can take part in. We went drinking in the streets right by the apartment, and witnessed a concert where water was blasted onto the entire audience. This celebration was markedly more Thai than the water fight I had been in before, and I was amused when I found I was among the top 1% of tallest people there. People offered us drinks, soaked us with water, and sung along to some song in Thai that I had never heard. I had a bag of beers over my shoulder, and got more drunk than I had been since arriving here in the north.

On the final day, which must have been over 100 degrees, we went down to the Three Kings Monument to catch another parade. We sat in choice seats, right on the sidewalk and in the shade, for lunch as the procession started. The traditional dancing and music set the mood for those throwing water all about. The teenager next to us, clearly associated with the family running the restaurant, had a large bucket fed by a hose. He relentlessly soaked passers-by as we sat and enjoyed traditional Thai cuisine. We actually wound up sitting there throughout the entire parade. The Thai people would never dream of asking us to leave, despite our coveted seats, because it is not in their culture. Furthermore, we continued to buy beers as we sat and watched. Besides, I really felt as if they welcomed us into their families celebration. Their little girl kept splashing me, or alternately filling my bucket for me. After we were done eating, we hung out with them for a bit, and I used their bucket to soak a few people on my own.

Last day of Song Kran, having fun with the locals.

The next day, we travelled up the mountain to Wat Doi Suthep, the holiest and most famous temple in Chiang Mai. It is filled with stunning beauty, devout monks, and tourism. The unabashed tourists, irreverantly taking pictures with the flash in the face of a meditating monk, made me quite sad. However, I know that the tourism does bring significant money to the wat. The maintenance of such a gorgeous mountaintop temple must be paid for somehow, and for the most part the visitors were respectful. There were several poorly worded signs in English, such as "Don't take your shoes off here," in the place one traditionally takes off their shoes before entering a holy place, and above a large grouping of sandals. The gilded scene I met when I walked to the summit was blindingly bright and every bit as breathtaking. While there, I was blessed by a monk, received an ancient Chinese fortune, and looked from the vista over the entire city.

Doi Suthep, the mountaintop wat. The sparkle of the sun seen in the picture does not do the actual scene justice. Many of the surfaces are covered in colored reflective glass, and it was nearly impossible to look up in the place, the sun shone so brightly. The small bright spot in this photo was really like a blinding green star to my naked eye, and this is my best attempt to capture that.

That night, while my family was out shopping for souvenirs, I returned to the apartment, violently ill. I don't know if it was from a fruit I was eating in which I discovered a maggot, or a piece of fried chicken from a street vendor that never sat quite right. Others had eaten some of the same fruits on the same day, so they think it was the chicken, but regardless, after heaving quite a bit I felt much better. After another half day or so of queasiness, I was back up to 100%.

Obviously, I was glad to be feeling better, however marginally, after the purge. I had to be travel ready the next day, as we were headed to a small get-away type town in a mountain valley in northern Thailand called Pai. We got up early, I skipped breakfast and coffee due to the uneasy stomach, and my mom, aunt, and I made our way to the pickup. My uncle Jimmy had to stay behind for his Thai writing class, a task he has undertaken that I do not envy him for. The 44 consonants and 43 vowels, all foreign looking, make this language look all the more cryptic. I definitely took extra care to notice the complexity of the writing on the signs as we wound through the mountains on our way to Pai.

After about a half hour of city driving, out of Chiang Mai, we hit the mountains. We wound up and down steep switch-backing roads. On either side, there were tracts of untouched rainforest, sparsely dotted with primitive settlements. Occasionally, we would reach some mountain crest and be rewarded with an amazing panoramic view of a completely virgin rainforest valley, with majestic mountains all around. The driving itself was also worth noting, for people would pass with very limited visibility, drive much faster than I believed prudent, and always make way for a monk walking along the side. Despite all the reckless driving, on the both the trip to and from Pai, I only saw one near accident.

Pai was an amazing experience, and I think I will return before my time in Asia is spent. When we arrived, we booked our rooms and rented scooters. Scooting about the country side for a few hours, we got a chance to see the traditional way of life blending with the modern. Laborers with large brimmed, pointed hats straw hats toiled in the fields with machetes, only to hop onto motorbikes when they finished. Straw huts stood in the fields while their owners chatted nearby on their cellphones. Monks catch rides in pickup trucks and on the backs of motorcycles, only to be dropped off back into the type of life that they have been living for thousands of years. We even stumbled across a Chinese village, were ethnic Chinese are living on in Thailand after being pushed out of their homes by the communist revolution, their culture still in tact and in practice.

Us at the Chinese village in northern Thailand.
Riding a scooter...

In our travels, we passed by an elephant camp my aunt had seen on her last visit to Pai. I have heard that no Thailand experience is complete until you see some wats and some elephants. While we had seen an elephant or two at the zoo a few days before, this was a much more complete experience. We stopped the bikes to take a few pictures, and were met by the mahout, or elephant handler. He told us that for 600 baht, roughly twenty dollars, two of us could ride the elephant for about an hour. My aunt Amy had ridden before, but my mom and I were happy for the opportunity. We opted to ride on the elephant's back, and not to subject him to the heavy seat they were going to strap on its back. It turned out to be a bonus for us, because we got a chance to go swimming with the elephant as well. When riding, you really feel the elephant's muscles moving beneath you, and it takes constant adjustment just to stay balanced. After a short journey down the road, we turned off and headed down to the river. We gave everything we didn't want to get wet to the other mahout, and the elephant trumpeted loudly as we descended into the water. Our mahout, who was constantly making jokes in his basic English, told us, "Happy ELEPHANT!"

Once in the water, the massive beast rolled around a bit, throwing me and my mother right off his back. We climbed back on, only to have him turn again and throw us right back into the muddy brown drink. When we climbed back on, yet again, I was prepared. I gripped the rope and hung on as if I would have a bucking bronco. My mom fell into the water, and I was hanging on, practically sideways. I looked up at the mahout, shrugged my shoulders, and flopped into the river once again. I had to help my mom get back up on the elephant, but once we scrambled to the top, he turned again. This time, I was able to stay on with the mahout. My mom couldn't get back on without my help, so I had to hop into the river to help push her back on. Once we were situated once again, the mahout turned back with a smile, and asked us if we wanted to go again. I had figured that the elephant had been playing with us, but as it turns out, the mahout was in control the whole time. We had quite enough, getting dunked and climbing on five or six times, and we headed back up onto land and back to their camp.

Me and my mom, riding an elephant, clearly.

After a wild storm and a night out at a jazz club open mic night, I let my family head back to Chiang Mai on their own. For one, as I have gotten older I have come to value solitary time much more. Secondly, traveling alone it is much easier to make friends with other young folks. I saw them off and laid in the hammock and read my book. I met another group of travelers, who had actually recognized me from a yoga class in Chiang Mai, and made plans with them for yoga the following morning. They invited me out to dinner with them as well, but I was into the home-stretch in my book and opted for a lazier evening.

The yoga class was certainly a memorable one. The instructor, a spritely 65 year old woman, was quite the character. When we arrived for the 9am class, she told us to wait a minute, seemingly to make sure she still had room after everyone with reserved positions had arrived. After 9am came and went, she told us that there would be no 9am class, and that we should come back for the 10am class. We paid and headed back to the room so I could check out before 11. When we returned, she had already forgotten about us, and had to scramble to make room for me. She had been a beauty queen and an actress before finding a life of yoga, and after the class told us quite a few stories about her life. One of which, the most memorable, was a story about yoga had kept her from needing to see the doctor. Later, she told us a story about how she had been in the hospital for 9 months due to parasites feeding of her liver, completely contradicting what she had just told us. I'll probably go back to Pai, but I will try out a different yoga studio before I return to her class. I hung out with my new friends for a few hours before hopping on the bus back to Chiang Mai. We passed the same rainforest vistas as before, but I surprised myself by how quickly I had become accustomed to the scenery.

The next day was spent at the Elephant Nature Park, about an hour and a half north of the city. This was a different elephant experience entirely. Here, there elephants roamed freely on the grounds, and we were cautioned repeatedly on safe elephant etiquette. This place, we came to learn, is a place where abused and neglected elephants can find a second life, free from the literal chains and burdens of their old lives. We saw a blind elephant, an elephant who had stepped on a land mine, and an elephant who had recovered from a broken back. All together, there were 35 elephants at this camp, and while we were not able to ride these elephants, we still got to feed them, bathe them, and play with them. We also learned quite a bit about the plight of Asian elephants, and I was quite moved by their story. I won't get into the hardships of street begging elephants or the rituals traditionally used to break their will, but I will say that it is good to know that there are people, like those at the camp, who are fully committed to helping these huge, majestic creatures. 

This is the elephant kissing me. Literally, with suction and everything. Quite the experience.

Check out the mid-air water action shot, as I help bathe the elephant.

Thailand is a wonderful country. I have been having such a great, memorable time, and learning a lot about their culture, as well as about myself, and what I want out of life. On Saturday, my mom flies back to the states, and my aunt and uncle have told me that they, too, need to get back to their regular routine. Things will slow down around here, in my own little world in Chiang Mai. However, I have met people to meet back up with, found out about plenty of things I want to do, and places I want to see, and can set my own pace for the rest of my time here. For today, the plan is yoga class, lunch with my uncle, and salsa dancing tonight. Tomorrow is another day full of planned activities, but after my mom heads out, it's back to shooting from the hip, which I love to do. While I do admit to having a tentative plan for the rest of my time here, I take a certain comfort in knowing that I can go wherever the wind may take me.

Me and my super gracious host, Auntie A, loving Thailand.

Me and my mom, soaking it all in.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Song Kran! Day 2

I thought the first day was a big water fight. Compared to the second day, it was seemed like it was merely a skirmish. In the pictures I posted last, you got a chance to see a few Song Kran enthusiasts getting an early start. Yesterday, every street, especially those surrounding the moat, was packed with water dousers. Sure, some folks would only sprinkle a bit of water over your head in the traditional fashion, blessing you with water. However, many more people would take their water buckets and throw the whole thing at you. To make matters a bit more interesting, many of the water bins are chilled by huge ice blocks. While normally it is in the 90s this time of year, or I guess in celsius in the high 20s, yesterday it was overcast, raining at times, and much cooler. So, when you got nailed with a a bucket full of ice cold water, it made you yelp.

After a leisurely morning, we headed towards Thaepae Gate. We hopped on a Songthaew with some locals, but even in the vehicle you were not safe from getting wet. The songthaews are just pickup trucks with two benches in the back and a cover over top. There is no door on the back and there are sliding windows around the sides. I had the thought to use the windows to squirt out, but I didn't want to attract any retaliation water while sitting with the dry locals. Still, folks still shot some water in the open back doorway. A few times, someone would fake us out with a empty bucket, but no one inside really got soaked.

Traffic more or less shuts down around the moat this time of year. People are walking through the slow moving and stopped cars, and many of the pickups have been converted mobile water attack stations. That is not to say the folks in the back of the pickups don't get wet themselves. Often, when someone gets squirted in the neck with some ice cold water, they don't just let it go. People will go out of their way to fill their buckets and get those riders back with a healthy dose of water. We made it to the north east corner of the wall, a half a mile from our destination. However, at that point traffic was not moving at all, and the driver hopped out of the cab and told us that she could take us no further, that it was all clogged up. We had been talking about walking the rest of the way anyway, so we hopped out and started walking down along the moat.

Within a few minutes, everyone in our party was absolutely soaked to the bone. I went through two cheap water guns, using them until they busted. After that I had to buy a bucket for under a buck, and that turned out to be more fun anyway. We didn't quite make it all the way down to the gate before we stopped in somewhere for a few beers. We had thought that certain people were off limits from the water: monks, cops, vendors, and diners. We were right for 3 out of the 4, but while sitting outside overlooking the street, we were still getting hit with water. We wanted to grab lunch, so we went inside and the waitress closed the glass door behind us. I had a burger, which came with a fried egg de facto, and onion rings. Not up to par with American standards, but by far the best American food i've had since getting to Asia. A few beers turned into a few more, and while we were sitting we saw our friend Dave blasting folks with his water gun in the street. We called him in to drink some of our beer, and after that he joined our party.

(This picture is actually from a different meal, but with the same people.)

I didn't have my camera, so I didn't actually get any pictures of the madness. My aunt Amy took hers, wrapped in cellophane, but eventually the water got through and now it's on the fritz. My mom took her camera, encased in a waterproof pouch, and managed to get a few pictures taken without wrecking the camera. Unfortunately, she thought that one charge would last her for her entire two week vacation, and it died before we could get the pictures out. So, I encourage people to search Google images or Youtube for Songkran in Chiang Mai, and you will get a feel for it. I did see quite a few people with waterproof cameras documenting the insanity.

Shortly after lunch, the "adults" had enough of the water games and headed back. Dave and I were having a blast, and we walked the rest of the way down to Thaepae Gate. If you've noticed I have not been spelling these Thai terms consistently, it's because neither do the Thais. There is no direct transliteration for the Thai alphabet, which has 44 consonants and 43 vowels, and even on the same stretch of road you will see the same thing spelled differently.

When we got to the gate, we saw a parade passing by, complete with dancing girls, gongs, and mounted Buddha sculptures being carried along by men in traditional dress. The parade was not off limits to water, either, and everyone marching in it was also quite soaked. They dished out the water as well, but in the more ceremonial sprinkling of blessings style. We watched for a bit, and headed even farther south. Just past the gate, we encountered a type of team battle, where two group congregated by water holes on either side of the street. There would be a chant, and then a rally, and one side would charge, yelling, and empty their buckets and guns on the other side. It was especially fun to get people that were still dry, at least somewhat, and people passing by slowly through the clogged, wet in their open vehicles.

We participated in this massive water fight for a few hours, but eventually grew tired. We decided to walk the two or three miles back to the apartment. After all, it was a party and a water fight the whole way, even if not quite as intense as the scene at the gate. We stopped by Dave's guest house for a bit, had a beer and some tea, and talked. I can't say we dried off too much, but it was nice to take a break and chill out. He, too, is a young guy traveling indefinitely, so we could relate to one another and had a lot to talk about. Feeling refreshed, we headed back out into the streets, got fully soaked again, and walked back to the apartment.

Changing into dry clothes was a treat. We all sat around the apartment, drinking whiskey, watching the movie channel, and nodding off. Nobody had eaten dinner yet, but we didn't feel like going out to a restaurant. At least the water fight stops after the sun goes down, so we were able to emerge from the apartment dry and stay that way. We didn't have to go far, there are vendors just across the street from the condo. We had a simple meal, for under a dollar a piece mind you, then we headed back upstairs. We turned in a bit early after another long, wonderful day. The festival is definitely growing on me, and I wouldn't mind if this tradition made it's way back to the States. However, if we do adopt this holiday, I think we should try for July or August when it gets really hot. 

Last night, I had a few more vivid dreams, although not quite as intense, and woke up early for some Philadelphia baseball. Baseball in the early morning is a strange experience, but it gave me the perfect opportunity to write this post. Now, after a dicey bottom of the ninth, the Phils came out on top and I am ready to get this day started with a little bit of breakfast with my Uncle Jim. My mom and aunt Amy are not too keen on spending another day throwing water all around, so I'm not sure what today will hold. I do know one thing for sure, it's going to be a lot of fun.

Song Kran! Day 1

I have often said that my favorite holiday is Halloween. Traveling, I come to find out that it is a uniquely American tradition. There is "La Dia de los Muertos" in Mexico, which is similar, but more religious and in honor of your ancestors. I met some Brits last night, and I found out that they also celebrated Halloween, but it is a cheap, lesser version of our American tradition. Back home, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. The Brits I met suggested that I adopt a new favorite holiday, Song Kran, the Thai new year. Maybe by the end of this three day festival it will have won me over.

Kids and adults alike soaking passer-bys.

Every April, Thais and foreigners alike "play water" for three days. Basically, the whole country erupts in a giant water fight, and no one, except maybe the monks, is safe. The vendors sell water proof pouches for cell phones, cameras and other goods, and we all had bought them. I got absolutely soaked, and was glad to have had a pouch. It turns out that farangs, the Thai term for foreigner, are the worst when it comes to soaking unwilling pedestrians. At midday, when the temperature is at its hottest, there is nary a street you can walk, or even drive down, without getting wet. Gangs of children throw buckets of water and squirt guns, motorcyclists are packing water pistols and squirting as they zip by, and pickup trucks have huge vats of water in the bag supplying teenagers with masks with enough water to drench anyone.

This is me getting absolutely executed by a group of farangs outside of the apartment. Because my family wanted a picture, they were happy to get me again.

My mom's flight was landing at Chang Mai airport in the morning, but I wanted to go to the last Yoga session before it closed for the week. In fact, many businesses are closed all week, and I have heard that it can be quite difficult to travel during the festival. I went to the Thaipae Gate, a landmark on the east wall of the moat-surrounded old city, where I was supposed to meet our friend David. I found out later that he got held up at the Chinese embassy securing his visa for an upcoming visit, so we did not meet up. I tried to find the yoga studio on my own, but after walking around on a bunch of unmarked sois, or small streets, I eventually gave up. I hoped in a Songthaew, and for roughly 80 cents I was taken back to the mall that sounds like Cat Swan Cow, right by my aunt's apartment.

When I got upstairs, I saw my mom for the first time in person since I had left on my trip back in February. She was tired from her travels, yet energized from the excitement of her arrival. So, despite coming straight from over a full day of traveling, she was up for a walk. I decided to join them, and, after a cup of coffee, the four of us were on our way. My mom walked ahead with her sister Amy, while I hung out with my uncle Jimmy-san behind. The girls took their time shopping in this store and that, while Jim and I sat in the shade and talked. It is amazing how much difference the shade makes in this tropical heat. We all got wet by people celebrating Song Kran as we walked through the city, and I squirted back, simply for participation's sake. Most of the kids actively soaking folks were also soaked themselves, but it was fun to be a participant as opposed to a victim.

We checked out a few wats, which is hard not to do. After all, they are all beautiful and they are all over the place. I saw a young monk smoking a cigarette who liked the Buddha amulet my uncle had given me. He spoke a little English and told me the amulet I had was "very old, indeed." I could only think about how the monk was smoking a cigarette, and before I leave this country I am going to try and get a picture of a monk smoking, listening to headphones. We were all a little beat from walking through the heat, and we went into the air conditioned mall for an hour of massage.

My mom and aunt Amy getting Thai foot massages. Meanwhile, I got a back massage.

The girls took a few naps while Jimmy and I shot the shit downstairs outside the apartment. It was dark by then, and the water antics had died down significantly. David met up with us, successfully this time, and we hung out until my mom woke up from her much needed nap. We went out to dinner to a large outdoor restaurant. It was another mooguta, or 'hot pot,' restaurant, where you cooked your own food in the middle of your table. There was a large buffet, and we all brought many strange and unlabeled meats back to the table. The waitress, dressed in the beer themed dress quite popular here, which I will have to take a photo so you can see what I mean, brought us a few big local beers with ice. While I am usually not a big fan of beer with ice, with the heat and cooking food right there on our table, I was glad the beer was cold.

After dinner, everyone but David and I went in for the night. I was just about over my jet-lag and ready to have a night out. Thankfully, Dave, who is roughly my age, was also interested in going out, and he showed me around town. We walked down to Thaipae Gate, only to find most of the Song Kran madness cleared out. He told me about the insanity he had witnessed that afternoon, with gridlocked traffic getting hit with buckets of water and not a dry soul to be found. We did see a few kids swimming in the dark brown dirty moat. We were disgusted, but were glad to have heard that they put some disinfectant chemicals into the water in preparation for the festival.

We walked through the gate and into the old city, where there was a night market. He told me that Thais don't shop at the night markets; they are just a tourist gimmick and a cultural relic. After experiencing it, we turned down a soi towards a low key reggae bar. There was only a few people at that bar, and we wound up playing "never-ever-have-I-ever" with a group of raucous, somewhat obnoxious Brits. For those of you who don't know, it's a drinking game where you say something you've never done, and anyone in the group who has done that thing must drink. I wasn't particularly thrilled with our new company, and despite their invitations, when the left for another bar, we stayed behind.

Turns out, a few minutes later we left for the same bar, Rock Roots Reggae. When we got to the street, a little bar district, we saw a bunch of farangs with drinks out on the streets. We went into the reggae bar, where an all-Thai band was playing Bob Marley and Sublime, as well as a reggae song about Chiang Mai and Thailand. We got some beers and grabbed a seat. It was crowded and there was plenty of dancing, on the dance floor and tables alike. There were several Thai girls really dressed up, and David and I talked about how they were probably looking to find a sugar-daddy farang boyfriend. He had been in the country for months and had some experience dating a Thai. He told me that they are generally looking for a relationship, marriage, and a trip to the states. After the discussion, I was convinced that I was more interested in the farangs than the locals. There were plenty of beautiful girls of both varieties.

The whole scene was a little much for as, we had a hard time hearing each other speak, and after a few beers we headed out. He walked with me up to the moat to help me catch a songthaew. Along the way, he asked if I liked jazz bars and I told him that I did, very much so. There is a jazz bar called the north gate, aptly named, right across the historic north gate of the city, where we stopped along the way. There was some rockin' jazz with Thai and farang musicians alike, and we stayed for several beers. He told me that, in the past, he had watched from the top of the gate, which really just an old brick wall with a door. He came to find out that climbing on the gate is highly frowned upon, so even though it's the perfect place to take in the whole scene and listen to the music, we didn't make the climb. 

Around one in the morning we were both tired and went our separate ways. I walked back to the apartment without issue, and for the first time slept smooth through the night without being woken up by vivid dreams. I don't know if it was because of the alcohol or not, but in the morning it was my mom who was up bright and early instead of me. She is not at all a morning person, and was incredulous that she was up and ready to go well before the rest of us. I told her that was to be expected for her first few days on the opposite side of the world.

Today, despite the rain, we are headed back to Thaipae Gate, where there is a steady stream of ceremonial and celebratory events. I will leave the picture taking to my mom and Aunt Amy, and leave my camera behind. Instead, i'll bring a water pistol.

Until next time, folks.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Thai Home

Somewhere in the rolling foothills of the Himalayas there lies the city of Chiang Mai. Although, to me, they hardly seem like foothills, they seem like mountains. As I look out my bedroom window I can see the lights of the monasteries on the top of the mountain, and I'm sure they would be considered mountains if they didn't have to be compared to the Himalayas. I had trouble sleeping last night, my sleep was filled with loud dreams, which is apparently common when recovering from jet-lag. I dreamt of different people and places, heard music and seemed to learn esoteric truths that were just beyond my recollection when I awoke. Finally, after weeks of traveling, camping, hostels and hotels, I am staying in a home. Yesterday morning, after spending all night on a bus from Bangkok, I arrived to my aunt's apartment in northern Thailand.

I visited a wat, or a temple, on my last day in Bangkok. My bus did was not scheduled to leave until six in the evening, so I spent my day walking about the city. After getting a shave with a straight razor, the first of my life, I wanted to experience some more authentic Thai culture. After all, the area around Khaosan Rd seemingly had more westerners than Thais, and you hear the Thais that are there often speak English, making a living catering to the tourists. Just at the end of the road, however, is a lasting bastion of Thai and Buddhist culture. When I entered, I no longer saw the tourists and the vendors and the dirt and the lights. No, instead I saw monks wrapped in saffron robes and devotees praying with offerings of incense. It was a very nice change of pace after spending a few days in the heart of Bangkok's tourist community. I was surprised to find cars parked on the wat grounds and vendors selling food inside it's walls, but I would later come to learn that a wat is also a community center, a school, and sometimes even a dance hall.

This is a Bodhi tree, under one of these trees in where Buddha was to have found enlightenment.

I made my way back to the travel agency, got a foot massage along the way, and arrived well ahead of time. I had been walking about all day, and did not mind the opportunity to sit in the cool air and read my book. A half hour after I was told to be there, a young Thai entered the room and called out my destination, Chang Mai. I followed him out onto the street to find a train of backpackers. I met one, a French-Canadian, who had told me he was promised hotel pickup when he booked his place on the bus. Apparently, all that meant that this guy came to their hotel, and from there they had to follow him through the streets as he picked up passengers at this place and that.

The path he led us through led through a Muay Thai boxing gym, and I joked that we would have to win a match before they would let us on the bus. From there, we were led to a small street and told to sit on one of a bunch of cheap, plastic stools. There, we had to wait another half hour or so, but I didn't mind at all. First of all, it's all about the journey, not the destination. Secondly, the actual bus ride was much less pleasant than sitting on the street was. Finally, and probably most significantly, I got a chance to speak Spanish with a gorgeous girl from Chile, who did not speak English. I wasn't sure if the Chilean guy with her was her boyfriend or not, but it didn't matter. I enjoyed our conversation, she told me I spoke with an Ecuadorian accent, and I will probably never see her again.

There was a store across from where we were waiting, and while many others stopped in for a beer, I got myself a large bottle of water, which I thanked myself for later. We were led off the small street and onto a busy thoroughfare, where a nice bus, not a school bus like I had been expecting, was waiting for us. They loaded the luggage on the bottom and we climbed in up top. I made my way towards the back looking to sit by either the French-Canadian couple or the Chileans I had already met, but it was not to be. Several times I tried to sit in an open seat, but felt a bit like Forrest Gump when I was told two or three times that the seat was taken. I sat down next to a fat, smelly eastern European, and so began my 700km journey north.

Speaking of kilometers, I have definitely been working on learning the metric system. Not only is it used in practically every country in the world, but most of the travelers I meet are ignorant as to inches and pounds. Not that I blame them. After all, why would they know, or even care to know? I, on the other hand, would like to be able to communicate, and have begun to get a feel for liters, kilos, and degrees centigrade. Temperature, by the way, is the most confusing of the lot. Each degree is so much more significant, and the ranges of cold, temperate and hot are only 10-15 degrees, which is confusing at first.

Thankfully, the bus was air conditioned, but I swear they slowly turned it down throughout the night. At first, aside from the smelly guy spilling over into my seat, everything was good. I was sitting across the aisle from a nice traveling English girl and an Irish girl in Thailand teaching English. Unfortunately, an Indian traveler convinced the cute English girl to switch seats with him. Really, it was only unfortunate for me, and better for everyone else. The girl got to sit up front with her friends, and the guy got to sit close to his friends, but instead of the opportunity for conversation with a pretty girl I had to listen to them speak an Indian language I did not understand. They played two movies and shut off the lights, but the Indian guys continued to speak loudly into the night. I got a bit of sleep here and there, but after I while it became so hot I sat up straight to try and ventilate my back and pits. Disgusting, I know, but that is just how I felt on the ride.

I slept a bit more, and when woke up again, I was thankful for my bottle of water. The sun was coming up, and I knew that meant we were close. Before long, we stopped at a bus stop, and the driver stood up and welcomed us to Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, the were in league with the taxi drivers, and each of us had to pay again to make it in to the city. I borrowed someone's cell phone and called my aunt, we set up a place to meet, Thaipae Gate. As we rode into the city, over the moat and into the old city, I saw many monks walking in lines with their bowls. It was the time of the morning where they left their wats to beg for their daily bread. The driver tried to persuade us all to stay at this one guest house, and he was even a bit pushy about it. Fortunately, that was the last pushy person I was to meet in Chiang Mai.

We stopped at the gate and I got out of the songthaew, which literally means "two planks." It reminded me of the camiones in Guatemala; a songthaew is a pickup truck with two benches in the back that works in lieu of a public transport system in this city. I strapped my bag to my back, and soon I saw my aunt in the distance coming to greet me. We walked through the city a bit in search of breakfast, but I came to find out that this city did not wake up for a few hours yet. Instead, we headed back to her apartment and she cooked me eggs. Like I said, finally I was in a home, and it felt wonderful. It still feels great, even now as I sit here and write, I know that I am with loved ones. Also, just being in this city as opposed to Bangkok feels great. It is friendlier, cleaner, more open, and certainly much more laid back.

My uncle Jim went off for a hike and I stayed and chatted with my aunt. I was exhausted, and before long I was asleep. I woke up again when Jimmy got back with his friend David, an American expat about my age. We went out to dinner, where Jimmy ordered in Thai, and they brought out plenty of uncooked food. There was a hot plate on our table with some vegetable broth, and we threw it all in a cooked it ourselves. Into the soup went chicken, pork, and noodles. Also, jellyfish, regular fish, and egg tofu. We had whiskey and sodas, as well as a great time. I made plans with David to go to his yoga class with him in the morning, and everyone called it a night.

This morning the yoga class was intense. In general, Thailand is hot and humid. On the second floor in a small room with over 20 people exercising, it is really really hot. Add to that my lack of practice and level of exertion, and I was dripping sweat. After class, David and I met with my Aunt and Uncle at the Funky Dog, a really cool restaurant whose owner had personality in spades. We met his dog, the funky dog himself, as well as his wife. Later, we saw Mr. Funky Dog riding away on his motorbike, with the dog half sitting on his lap, half steering the bike. His wife made the comment that they were both funky dogs, but asked us not to tell her husband what she had said.

After lunch, David went on his way and we went on ours. They took me around to see several wats, and walked quite a bit. Later, after all the sightseeing, we returned to their apartment for a dip in the pool. Feeling refreshed, we went to the mall across the street, which is named something along the lines of "Cat Swan Cow," which is just how it sounds in Thai. We got water guns for the Song Kran festival the next day, and had a traditional noodle soup for dinner. All in all, I am loving my time here. In fact, I don't even want to spend any more time writing about it, I want to go live it. My aunt took a few pictures today and I will post some of them soon, but until then, you will just have to use your imagination.

Oh, and by the way, I found my comment settings and changed a few things around. Now, if anyone wants to comment, please feel free. I do not think that you will have a hard time if you try it now.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bangkok is... crazy.

I have now been in Bangkok for three days, and I don't know where to begin. I sit here in the internet cafe, slightly hung over, looking out to the street for inspiration. I am on Khao San Road, which is the backpackers' headquarters of Thailand. I see tourists walking down the street, being harassed by locals to purchase their wares, be it a tailor-made suit, a ride, or some sort of souvenir. Everyone is wearing sandals, shorts, and sleeves are rare. The street is dirty and crowded, and all the shops spill over onto the sidewalk, diverting even more traffic to the street. Since my arrival, I have not seen the sun rise or set; it has been obscured by the buildings of this urban jungle.

Still, I am meeting travelers and making friends. After waking up at the airport hotel, I asked the reception desk for a ride to this area. A car shortly arrived, and I drove through some of the worst traffic I have ever seen in my life to get here. Over an hour later, after we had passed by street markets, driven on the wrong side of the road, and almost hit several motorcycle riders who constantly weave through the traffic, I arrived. I knew we were getting close when I noticed all the white folks, and sure enough, this was the place. I paid him a very expensive 800 baht, and wandered around a bit.

I got a half hour Thai massage for under four dollars. Despite the plethora of shops and stands and vendors, I had a feeling that this, the tourist capital of the country, would be the most expensive place to shop, so I didn't buy anything. I sat for a cappuccino, and began talking to a fifty year-old South African guy. He was quite nuts, emphatically anti-political, and ardent about the fact that he had never once voted for anyone, anywhere. He was wearing a bathing suit and flip flops, with no shirt, and he had one singular dread-lock in his long, dirty brown hair. Later, I would see him dancing by himself in the street, listening to the loud techno music being played by a vendor. I definitely got the impression that he had been traveling for way too long.

Shortly after I sat with this guy, another traveler, this one from Copenhagen, sat with us. The two of them would call out to the women walking by in different languages, and when they got their attention they would simply ask them to smile. Like anywhere, we were ignored by a few, given dirty looks by a few, and got a few smiles. I wound up hanging out with the Dane for quite a bit, and he gave me lots of advice about Thailand. I got the feeling that he was a story teller, if you know what I mean, and that a few of his tales were a bit exaggerated. Still, I enjoyed talking to him and learning some of the ropes. When his bus headed for a ferry to one of the islands arrived, I was once again on my own.

I walked up and down the road, and in and out of alleys. Here, there are many "walking streets," which, to me seem like alleys, but really they are streets for pedestrians only. Now, that doesn't mean you don't have to dodge a scooter or motorbike now and again, but even these streets are plush with stores and people. Some of these streets lead through to other streets, and some lead to dead ends. I was walking down one of these streets, and an Israeli guy called out to me, asking me to stop for a drink.

As I came to find out, he sat on his bar stool calling out to everyone, inviting them for drinks, but I still was happy to sit and converse. With him was a Californian expatriate who was the owner and operator of a pizza place here in Thailand, and several Thai women. Well, I say women, but one was definitely a man, more on that later. After a drink, the group of travelers broke up, and I headed back to the main road. The Israeli was emphatic about exchanging contact information, and told me that I should meet him in Cambodia after the Song Kran, the Thai new year.

I sat at a much bigger bar, right in the thick of Khaosan road, and was joined by an older Finnish woman. I had the feeling that she was hitting on me, but I was by no means interested. We talked about how many old, fat men you can see with cute, young Thai women. She lamented that you never see it the other way around, with ugly older women courting attractive Thai guys. While I had been thinking it, she actually mentioned that maybe she should try it out. I excused myself and hired a taxi for roughly 400 baht to take me back to my hotel, about half the price I had paid to get there that morning.

The next day I checked out of the airport hotel and asked the front desk for a ride into Khaosan again. This time, however, I had learned my lesson. Instead of hiring the "limo," which was really just a cheap sedan, I had them call a taxi, which was not an option they ever offered me. This time, the taxi ran the meter, and I paid about 200 baht for the ride, half again what I had paid the last time. I checked into a guest house, half price of the airport hotel, and in a much better location. I then laid down and took a much needed nap. When I woke up, I felt as if I had almost kicked my jet-lag, but didn't want to spend any more time in the room.

I eventually found the same bar I had been at last night, the quiet bar in the alley. I figured it would be a good place to meet up with other travelers, and sure enough, I found two Irish guys and an incredibly drunk Norwegian guy, all traveling alone. The same Thai girls were there, dancing with us and getting us beers. I had two or three big Changs, because it was much more economical to drink the big bottles of the cheap stuff. One of the Irish guys had a bottomless glass of whiskey that I never saw him pay for. The girls just kept taking his half-full glass and refilling it. By the end, he was quite pissed, as they say. When he went up for a shower, one of the girls that was dancing on him started dancing on me. (I would say dancing with, but really we just sat on the bar stools while they danced all around us.) The other Irish guy warned me that the first guy had been buying her drinks all night, but I really wasn't doing anything anyway.

The bartender was a lady boy, for sure. Despite long hair, makeup, and a busty chest, she had broad shoulders and occasionally she slipped and her voice got a bit deep. When I mentioned it to the Israeli guy the night before, he said that he knew from experience that she wasn't. All that meant to me was that he had an enjoyable experience with a lady boy, and while it's all good for him, not for me.This night, another lady boy was there, trying to rub elbows with the westerners. While the bartender obviously put a lot of work into it, and could be deceiving, this second lady boy was a different story. I joked that it had been a game-time decision, just that morning a guy decided to wear a pink shirt and throw on earnings. At one point he says to me, "I'm a lady! I'm a lady!" to which I can only reply, "Of course you are..."

I went with one of the Irish to a bar to meet a pair of Dutch broads he had met earlier in the day, the Irish guy that didn't have his hands full with bottomless whiskeys and Thai girls. Unfortunately, the Dutch never showed up, and we headed back to the alley bar. A whole lot of us, for somehow our group had grown quite a bit, went out dancing. From this club to that, dancing with travelers and Thais, I had a great time. While I know I switched from booze to water, somehow I still spent a few hundred baht, and several times had drinks bought for me. Later, at the club, we saw all the Thai girls from the alley bar, but there was no sign of the Irish whiskey drinker or the exceptionally friendly Thai girl. I guess we can all deduce what happened there.

Eventually I got separated from the group and went back to one of the bars where we had been before. Instead of finding the traveling entourage, I only found a few Thai girls that had been buying me drinks. I had enough to drink, so I didn't stay long. I headed back to my room, was hit on by a lady boy, declined, obviously, no matter how drunk I might have been, and got some much needed sleep. Today, I checked out, bought my bus ticket for Chang Mai in the north, and will be leaving in a few hours.

Things I have learned so far : If they ever say "I'm a lady, I'm a lady!" - they are not ladies. Whatever you pay for you could probably get for half the price, so in general you should scoff at the first price and counter with half. If they meet you somewhere in the middle, walk away. They will usually let you have it for half. Don't try and buy any western food, you will just be disappointed. It may have a name you recognize, like eggs and bacon or whatever, but it isn't what you are hoping for. Have Pad Thai instead, it's authentic local cuisine and much much better. That's it for now, hopefully you can picture what Bangkok is like. It's busy, dirty, and fun, but I am ready for a change of pace.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Western Path to the Far East

 I wanted to start this post with my alititude, but the all the announcements on the plane I am on are in Chinese, and I don’t understand any of them. After taking a nap, polishing off my book, starting another, and watching two terrible in-flight movies, I still have quite a long time left traveling. My computer tells me that it is currently 6:15pm, which means we have been in the air for almost six hours, which means we are not even half way across the Pacific. I must not have slept long.

Last night it was tough to sleep. I am was anxious and excited about my trip overseas. My alarm was set for 6am, and I was up and pacing about the hotel room a full half hour before my ride was scheduled to come, at 7. I hugged my aunt and my uncle walked me downstairs where I was getting picked up. I posted on craigslist that I had wanted a ride to LAX in the morning, and while this guy proposed to take me anytime, which served my purposes, but I knew it wasn’t a true rideshare. I rideshare is a situation where someone is going somewhere anyway, and they open up the space in their car for whatever reason, but this ride was just me paying him to take me to LAX.

He was from East India, didn’t have much tact or good English skills, and he smelled bad. I do not regret having not having a picture of him. He did not get out of the car when we approached, and I because my uncle was a little sketched out by the whole thing, he took a picture of his liscense plate. My driver laughed at this, but I really internally greatful to have insurance against being robbed and/or kidnapped. The road into LA is depressing, and I felt the melancholy sadness I had thought I would have felt when I left San Fran. We drove from paradise into the smog filled urban jungle. Sure, we still saw palms along the roadway, but more and more they were in the foreground of warehouses and pavement, not lush green hills with expensive houses. Los Angeles rush hour traffic was not any worse than what we have in New Jersey, and while I realize I could have simply gotten lucky, I inwardly scoffed at it’s atrocious reputation.

So I have been headed west for almost seven weeks, and I am finally on my way to the east, the Far East. Counterintuitive, I know, but once you cross the Pacific all the rules change. In fact, things have already changed. I am on a flight where I am in the small minority of non-Asians, and I no longer understand the languages being spoken around me.  There are characters on the seats instead of letters, and I am comparatively much taller than I was in LA. Then again, nothing has changed, and things are all the same. There is a baby crying, and the guy sitting next to me is annoyingly fidgety. Airline food is still terrible, as are the in-flight movies. I am looking forward to seeing all the similarities and differences that are waiting for me, just as I wait here in the airplane to experience them.


After the transPacific flight, I landed and met and American girl who was also traveling to Bangkok. Together, we went through customs, and to my pleasant surprise I received a Chinese passport stamp. We got in through security, with our shoes on, without incident and had a few hours to kill until our next flight. We had a few drinks at the bar, and were both shocked to find out that beers still cost $5. We then headed to the boarding gate and I got some much needed sleep on my bag for about 15 minutes. Then it was in the shuttle bus and up the stairs into the plane, this one much much smaller than the one before.

In front of me was an American guy from Utah who had been living in China for the last five years. He was quite interesting, and it was nice to be able to speak English for a bit. I was tired tho, and slept as much as I could on that plane. It was much easier to get a little rest because I had an empty seat next to me. Cassidy, the guy from Utah, woke me up when they brought food, but it was this terrible collection of dried weird foods, like onion cookies and hickory. I ate as much as I could, and went back to sleep.

When the plane landed on Thai soil, the three of us American travelers walked together through customs. Each of us had a one-way ticket, and if we had any issues with customs, at least we would be in it together. Thankfully, we did not need to prove our planned exit from the country, and we got right through. The only slight hitch in our plan was our "address in Thailand," but since I had booked a hotel room for the night, I was ok. Cassidy was standing next to me, and he just filled in the same response as me. Miranda, the American girl, was staying with a Thai friend of hers.

I met Miranda's Thai friend and her father, who shook my hand and bowed, and then went to find the shuttle to my airport. Cassidy had just moved from Shanghai, so he had much more luggage than I. He did not know where he was headed that night, so I offered him use of my free shuttle. He wound up checking into the room next to me, and we called it a night. In my room it was muggy, but after a while the air conditioning started working. Now, I eat a sparse breakfast full of strange foods and cold eggs.

Much more on Thailand later, but I just got here. This, I know, really just describes the trip here. But just to whet the appetite, here are a few strange things about this place I have seen so far. I am in a 5-story hotel, and there is no bathroom. There are also a bunch of half sized doors all over the place. My shower is an non-recognizable contraption, next to the toilet, without a curtain or a stall of its own. However, despite its relative complexity and strangeness, I am going to go try and use it right now!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Free Parking in San Diego

San Diego, California is quite possibly the most perfect place in the world. Picturesque palms fifty feet tall line the streets as luxury cars cruise down towards the beach. Healthy, good looking people work in high end stores and exercise in the sun. I am forced to wonder if people who grew up in this paradise appreciate how incredible this place is in comparison to much of the rest of the world, and am glad that I am able to appreciate it so much. I am glad to be from Jersey and ecstatic to be here in San Diego, but I wish I could get a pork roll and egg sandwich around here! If I had a pork roll sandwich, well, then I would have everything.

Actually, to get everything I need more yet, and should have been taking more pictures. It's just that the whole process of picture taking is a pain to me, as I am forced to stop whatever's going on to try and capture it. I have decided, though, that I should take at least one picture with of all the interesting people I meet. It turns out that some of the folks at the West Hollywood hostel were really cool, and I would like to have pictures of us smiling together. Sure, I actually meet plenty of people I don't want pictures of, sharing brief conversations, hearing their accents and occasionally smelling their scents, good or bad. On the occasion you actually get to know some a little bit better, and these interesting people should be remembered.

For example, I am glad to have gotten a photo with my family here in San Diego, but I missed the opportunity to get a shot of Abel, the native American I gave $25 bucks for a rideshare from LA to San Diego. It was a great trip, getting clogged up in LA traffic until we passed the Staples Center and sped down the 5. I told him that LA traffic reminded me of home, my plans for traveling, and the story of John Basilone. He told me about his smelly and sketchy experiences with rideshare on several trips between the two cities, and when we passed a sign letting us know we were on John Basilone Memorial Highway. He didn't recognize the name, so I told him that I learned in HBO's The Pacific that he burned his hand and arm picking up a red hot machine gun and then relocated it to save his by friends killing hundreds of enemy soldiers. After he won the Medal of Honor and travelled through the states selling war bonds, he volunteered to go back, only to die fighting. To make the story more tragic, his death was only a few months after his marriage. He then told me that he would share John Basilone's story with all his rideshares in the future, and I was happy to have spread some American patriotic knowledge. Later, at dinner in San Diego I would again see a big flag and understand why people from this place love their country.

His tribe has once owned all of La Jolla, home of beautiful coves, hills, cliffs and seals, right here in San Diego. He told me that his tribe was recently denied a reservation by the federal government because the other tribes with casinos lobbied the government against the potential competition so close to LA. Abel himself was a Fulbright Scholar, so he had traveled the world on the scholarship's dime, and had seen quite a bit of the world in his fifty years. After all that, he still believed that San Diego was the best place, and after being here for just around 24 hours, I have gotten a feel for why he thinks that.

I had a great time in LA before coming here, linking up with several cool people at the hostel. Ngaire is a beautiful massage therapist, dance-instructor and professional Hawaiian dancer from Austalia with a great heart and advice from experience in Thailand, and I had the pleasure of spending time meeting her. She had been running around traveling and breaking guys hearts with this very popular gay guy named Roger. I'll have to admit, he was hard not to like; he made friends with every last male and female at the hostel, and even some strangers out on the town. We didn't actually get out and into a club that we liked, but we walked and we talked and we people watched ourselves a great night. A bigger group slowly split up time went on, and at the end of it all Ngaire and I left for the hostel and had a great conversation. In the basement, we sat facing away from the cute beautiful Brazilian girl talking intimately with the Canadian traveling bar tender, so they might have some privacy, but soon another group came downstairs and talked loud and drunkenly. The slick Canadian, Andy and the bubbly beauty from Brazil excused themselves, and he left with a smile on his face. I called it a night around 3:30am, well before the Brits came up to the dorm, which was the same as mine.

The next morning while waiting for my ride I linked up with a Swede and a cool Canadian chick who had a design tattooed on the sides of her head. I wish I had a picture, and I don't want you to get the wrong idea. She still had long hair, and could let it hang over the sides, but the uniqueness and diversity of her look was really cool, especially because she had an exotic and bold wardrobe. I went with Andy and the two others to the farmers' market across the street in the afternoon, and before long I was headed to San Diego with Abel to meet up with Uncle Carlos and Auntie Eve. I would have liked pictures of me and all of these people to post here, and while some of these exist, I have definitely decided to make sure these are the pictures that wind up on my camera.

My ride dropped me off right at my family's hotel room, some super posh and luxurious accommodations within walking distance from the coves and the seals of San Diego's La Jolla, apparently named after my friend Abel's tribe. We walked by the beach, saw the seals and the cliffs and the waves, then grabbed some margaritas while we waited for our dinner reservation. I probably hadn't had a better dinner than this in my entire life. Uncle Carlos insisted I had a salad, so we ordered two and the cheese in the salad was delicious. We walked into a packed outdoor restaurant, which couldn't possibly be open in the rain, and were led to a small table against the rail overlooking the sun setting over the vast and calm Pacific, and even here in San Diego I feel the air blowing in from Asia calling me across. We had steak and fish, fine wine, after dinner cordials and dessert until the sun was down and it became rather dark and a bit chilly.

To me, my uncle is the epitome of the American dream. He is from a middle class minority family in south Jersey, and through hard work and sharp wits over the years has become a well paid doctor with his own business. I love them and their children very much, and am always glad to spend some time with them. They mentioned a European trip and I told them I would meet them wherever they wanted to go this summer. Another chance at free parking at a beautiful travel destination is good with me! It makes me think about a Travelopoly game, where you would circle the globe seeing things and meeting people. I don't know how one would win such a game, but play would have travel cards and city cards and hostels, hotels, and house stays. While I'm bouncing around thinking of games, Uncle C will be back in Florida helping to keep people alive, and I admire anyone who spends their career in the service of helping others. If that service also serves you, all the better. Next time I work in the US it very well may be in the medical field.

This morning, we checked out the San Diego Zoo. Really, that zoo is truly, truly amazing. We got there early and saw everything we wanted to see by mid day. It is set up with trails and the nature spills over the cages. Only a few times did I feel sorry for the animals, and for the most part felt they had pretty good health care and pleasant conditions provided for them. After seeing the hippo, a woman there told us that she had seen him many times and the he was never so active. I looked him in the eyes and he followed me as I walked around the tank. He then scratched his back on a log and sent a plume of dust and dead grass off of his back, climbed out into the sun, and opened his huge mouth wide to yawn, showing us his teeth.

Later, a mountain lion got up and walked right towards the front of his cage. At first I thought he was looking at me, but then realized that he was staring directly at the young boy next to us. He prowled forward with the boy in his sights, and I could see the fear in the boys eyes. The young child was not taking into account the fence or railing, and the mountain lion looked serious as well, as if he really craved the flesh of the child. After the zoo and a nap, we had another meal and walked about the shops. Once again, I was impressed by the beautiful women of California, and I hoped they appreciated how nice their environment really was. An anticlimactic finale to the college national basketball championship, more food than we could eat, and next thing I know we were bag at the hotel so I could pack.

I go to Thailand tomorrow and yet it doesn't seem real. More pressing on my mind is the two days in the airports and up in the air, through the airport security, and dealing the international customs. After tonight, i'll have miles to go before I rest. Wish me luck, but right now I need to get some sleep.